Steel Your Nerves

October 30, 2020 9:27 a.m.

We are truly in the time that tries everyone’s nerves. Most of the indicators look very promising for Joe Biden and Senate Democrats; House Democrats will almost certainly expand their majority. But elections are inherently unpredictable, especially in this election whether novel and improvised ways of administering elections create inherent uncertainty and one side is placing its hopes on making voting as hard as possible.

A few thoughts on what I’m seeing.

The first thing is that Joe Biden appears to be 8 or 9 points ahead of Donald Trump and consistently place at 50% or above in national polls. If those numbers are basically accurate Joe Biden will almost certainly win the electoral college and become the next President. You can win the popular vote and lose the electoral college. But it’s hard to do both if your popular vote margin is that high or close to that high.

National polls are often off by two or three percentage points in either direction. But even assuming Trump betters those numbers by that much he’s still left probably too far behind to win. The number of undecided voters is also much lower than in 2016 and in most national polls Joe Biden is at or above 50% support. Those are each big differences from 2016.

Zoom in a bit and there’s a more interesting picture, with features which can calm or accentuate your anxiety.

Joe Biden has significant but small leads in a number of traditionally or usually Republican states: Georgia, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina. He’s roughly tied or a bit behind in Iowa, Ohio and Texas. Follow these probabilities and you have the makings of a Biden blow out. But many of these leads are quite small. You could see every one of these states going to Trump with no heroic assumptions and suddenly the math is very tight. It’s perhaps better to say you could see anyone of those states going to Trump with no heroic assumptions. All of them going against the polls would likely require some broader polling error. But that can happen too. What that means though is that everything has to break in Trump’s direction to even get into serious contention.

One thing I’ve noticed in recent days is that Trump has made up significant ground in Florida but seems to be slipping in Georgia. It’s not impossible that we end up with a scenario where Trump wins Florida but loses Georgia. Weird but I’ll take it.

Those states are key for another reason. They’re both on the East Coast and they’re both fast counting states. Things could end early if Trump loses either of those states and we could know relatively early on Tuesday. Much harder on your nerves is that if Trump wins both those states or its close we could end up in a situation where Trump is ahead in same day voting in states in the Upper Midwest before mail-in ballots are counted. Biden appears to be in a strong position in Wisconsin and Michigan and pretty strong in Pennsylvania. But this is a very ominous scenario not only because it will be nerve-wracking for Democrats but because this will trigger a herculean legal press from the Trump campaign to make sure those votes are never counted. They already got a big legal assist in Minnesota last night from bad acting federal judges.

We talked a couple days ago about probabilities and consequences. My only advice in getting through these final days is this. You’re about to see an avalanche of ad hoc and anecdotal data, much of which will frighten you, some of which will cheer you. Most of it really won’t tell you that much. It’s important to keep an eye on the big global information, the best though imperfect information we have, which is polling nationally and even more in key states. That data suggests the following: that Biden is in about as good a position as he could realistically be in. Not a done deal by any means. But about as good as you could hope for. The downsides re the novel methods of voting and the federal courts. The upsides are that the number of undecideds are much fewer this year than in 2016. That was Hillary Clinton’s achilles heel. There were a large number of undecideds. So even though she was ahead if a larger number broke against her she’d lose. And that’s just what happened. That factor is very different this year.

Could things go wrong? Yes. But they probably won’t.

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